Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“The Highest of the Mountains” (Isaiah 2:2-4)
December 1, 2019
In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Last week a friend of mine texted me a photo of a church sign from New York City that read, “The fact that there’s a highway to hell and only a stairway to heaven says a lot about anticipated traffic numbers.” While I could preach a sermon about the subtle differing theological nuances between AC/DC and Led Zeppelin, we’ll do that another time.
Today is the first Sunday of the new church year, the First Sunday of Advent. During Advent we begin another walk down the familiar road that will lead us to Jesus’ nativity, followed by Epiphany, Lent, Easter and Pentecost all the way to Christ the King Sunday again next year. During Advent, which means “arrival” we anticipate celebrating anew the first arrival of Jesus at his incarnation, and also look forward with hope to Jesus’ second arrival, his Second Coming when as we pray in The Book of Common Prayer Jesus “shall come again in power and great triumph” (378). We use purple during Advent because purple is the color of royalty as we worship Jesus Christ the King of Kings.
When my family and I lived in Charlottesville, Virginia I spent many hours hiking the 107 mile stretch of the Appalachian Trail through Shenandoah National Park. Some parts of this trail I walked numerous times, but although the path was the same, the circumstances were never the same; they were always different. Walking the same path on a hot August evening is different from walking it on a rainy October morning, or a clear and cold January afternoon. Walking the same path on a fresh spring day with countless trees just beginning to bud is different from walking it on a crisp autumn day with those leaves a host of different colors gently and circuitously falling to the ground. The weather is never the same—the differences in temperature, cloud cover, precipitation, wind speed and direction make walking the same path a new experience every time. Walking a path with your kids in elementary school is different than walking that same path with them when they’re in high school or college—same path, very different places in life.
And those are just the external differences when walking the same path. The same idea applies internally as well. You may be walking the same path but your mind and heart are never in the same place. It is one thing to walk that path when you are in the midst of a ministry in Charlottesville, Virginia; it is another to walk that same path when anticipating a move to Valdosta, Georgia. It is one thing to walk that path after praying in the hospital with brand new parents rejoicing over their newborn child; it is another to walk that same path while grieving the death of one of your favorite elderly members of the church, someone who always had your back and always bought you dessert at lunch. Internally one day you may feel you are climbing a stairway to heaven, while another like you are on a highway to hell.
Along these lines the most famous poem by the great twentieth century poet Robert Frost is “The Road Not Taken” (1916), a poem you certainly read in school:
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden back,
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less travelled by,
And that has made all the difference.
As we begin a new year of the church calendar, as we begin walking anew the old familiar path, each of you is probably in a different circumstance in your life, either externally or internally, than you were a year ago. Each of you has your own story with your own joys and challenges, your own changes—and God knows each of you better than you know yourself, and God loves each of you more than you could ever love yourself, loves you more than you could ever imagine.
Recently I came across a story about a girl named Adrianna Edwards in Galveston, Texas who walked the same road every day, fourteen miles every day, to and from her job as a waitress at a Denny’s restaurant. As a kid Adrianna probably did not dream of someday working at a Denny’s and having to walk fourteen miles a day to get to and from her job, a job that requires her to remain on her sore feet most of the time. But like many of you Adrianna simply did what she had to do to keep on keeping on—or as she put it, “You’ve got to do what you got to do.”
Adrianna had been doing her best to save up for a car, but something unexpected happened to her on a Tuesday morning. A nondescript couple eating breakfast at that Denny’s learned of Adrianna’s situation and after breakfast left, only to return a few hours later with a 2011 Nissan Sentra that they purchased and gave to Adrianna. Adrianna was moved to tears and thought it was too good to be true. “I still feel like I’m dreaming,” she said, “I come look out my window and see if there’s still a car there.” The generous couple wished to remain anonymous and simply asked Adrianna to help out someone else in need down the road, pun intended. That couple chose the road “less travelled by” and that made all the difference for Adrianna, and still does.
The Old Testament reading for this First Sunday of Advent is from the prophet Isaiah, whose ministry in Israel occurred about seven centuries before Christ and lasted over fifty years. Isaiah is considered the greatest of the Old Testament prophets both due to his long ministry and his beautiful writing, which is among the most beautiful of the entire Bible, especially in the King James Version which as you should know by now is the version Jesus used. In today’s passage Isaiah describes the most important path in the world, a path for all those who like Adrianna walk the same path every day because “you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do”, a path that would make “all the difference” for humankind—all the difference for you—the path “up to the mountain of the Lord”:
In the days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it. Many peoples shall come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more (Isaiah 2:2-4).
Like many of the prescribed scripture passages in the season of Advent, this passage applies both to Jesus’ first arrival and his Second Coming as it foretells a path up to the mountain of the Lord that Jesus would walk during his first arrival, and the hope of the eternal mountain of the Lord to which God beckons you at Jesus’ Second Coming.
At his first arrival Jesus metaphorically descended the stairway to heaven to come to earth. Jesus walked the same paths throughout Nazareth and Galilee and Jerusalem with his disciples again and again, but each time he walked those roads it was different. Some days were hot and dusty, others were cold and wet. Some days he preached about the unconditional love of God for those who feel alone walking the same road every day, those who like Adrianna spend each day doing what you’ve got to do. Other days he told parables about the kingdom of God, about the broad and easy road to destruction and the narrow and difficult road to eternal life (Matthew 7:13-14).
As Jesus walked the same roads he encountered different people. One day it was a blind man who had never seen anything in his life, who had spent his entire life sitting on the side of a road he could not see as others walked past him every day—but Jesus stopped and opened his eyes. Another day Jesus encountered lepers whose disease meant they were only allowed to be around other lepers, whose disease meant they could not be touched or hugged or kissed or patted on the back—and Jesus stopped and touched them and healed them. On still another day Jesus encountered a lonely tax collector named Matthew who had lots of money but few friends and beckoned him, “Follow me” (Matthew 9:9).
As Jesus walked the same roads one day he encountered a group of religious leaders who had caught a woman in the act of adultery, a woman terrified of being stoned to death by her accusers. Jesus forgave her on the spot and caused all her accusers to walk away and gently said to her, “Neither do I condemn you” (John 8:1-11). Another day as he walked down the road he came across Martha and Mary whose beloved brother Lazarus had died, and comforted them with words of hope, “I am the resurrection and the life,” and later called forth their dead brother from the tomb because God’s love is even stronger than death (John 11:25; 43-44).
As Jesus’ passion and death loomed near, he and his disciples walked up the same road to Jerusalem one last time. As they entered the Holy City the crowds chanted, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” (Matthew 21:9). But on Good Friday, after being kept up all night long and beaten and mocked and sardonically donned with a purple robe, Jesus heard the crowds chant something very different, “Crucify him!” (Mark 15:13). And so Jesus was a given a cross and walked one last time along the same road, doing what he had to do to save you from the road you’re on—and to forgive you and assure you of everlasting life.
On and on Jesus trudged along that road, all the way to Calvary, “the highest of the mountains” Isaiah had foretold. And on that highest of the mountains, as Jesus suffered on the cross, the word of the Lord prophesied by Isaiah went forth from Jesus’ lips, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). And on the highest of the mountains, God’s judgment of the nations prophesied by Isaiah—and God’s judgment of you—was taken upon the back of the Judge himself, whose final cry at his last breath indicated once and for all the completion of God’s judgment, “It is finished” (John 19:37). Jesus did all this to transfer you from the highway to hell to the stairway to heaven.
And at his Second Coming, Jesus will establish his eternal kingdom in the heavenly Jerusalem, “the highest of the mountains,” an eternal kingdom of peace in which “nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” In the meantime, God’s choice of the road not taken will carry you on down the road to eternal life. You are not dreaming. If you look outside your window, you will see that the car God has purchased you is still there.